Tanya Talaga’s book Seven Fallen Feathers is a triumph. She compassionately bears witness to the incredibly complex network of challenges facing Indigenous peoples in Canada. But just as effectively, she illustrates how these challenges are not for Indigenous people alone to solve; they are challenges for all residents of Canada.
Throughout the book, Talaga unfolds the cases of seven students from northern Ontario reserves who had to travel to Thunder Bay to pursue their highschool educations. Each of them died in Thunder Bay. Honouring their memories, Talaga incorporates the history of Indigenous/non-Indigenous relations into her work to explain the systemic racism that killed these children. I quote two excerpts from the book that I hope illustrate how complicated these issues are.
On everything being connected in non-linear ways:
In her human rights complaint, [Cindy] Blackstock alleged the Government of Canada was racially discriminating against Indigenous kids by providing inequitable levels of child welfare funding to Indigenous children and their families. The result of the inequities affected all aspects of a child’s life. Unequal education funding meant Indigenous kids went to substandard schools. There was a higher dropout rate, which often led to unemployment and higher levels of incarceration. Unequal social and health program funding meant more kids were in state care due to broken-down families. In fact, when Blackstock filed the claim it was estimated that anywhere from 23,000 to 28,000 Indigenous children were in foster care—meaning nearly 40 percent of all Indigenous kids were in state care.
—Tanya Talaga, Seven Fallen Feathers, pg. 203–4
On the linear connections of legacy:
As Alvin [Fiddler, now Grand Chief of Nishnawbe Aski Nation,] listened quietly to Harper’s speech, he thought about the children of Nishnawbe Aski Nation and the situation they were in right now. Most of them didn’t have any clean water to drink or to bathe in. Many lived in houses without plumbing or proper heating. Fires were constantly claiming the lives of NAN kids because they lived in poorly constructed tinderbox houses that used homemade wood stoves to heat the rooms. Alvin thought about the abject poverty most of his people lived in and the addictions they suffered in the hopes of making all their misery go away.
Alvin thought about their parents, even his own older brothers and sisters, who had gone to residential school before the family moved to Muskrat Dam. And he thought about the forced schooling of more than 150,000 Indigenous kids and what it had done to the psyche of the people and the impact it had had on the next generation and the next.
And then he thought about the five dead students there in Thunder Bay. A direct line of causation could be drawn from the residential school legacy to the failings in the government-run education system his people were left with.
—Tanya Talaga, Seven Fallen Feathers, pg. 240
All non-Indigenous Canadians should read Tanya Talaga’s book. Seven dead children is seven too many, and as Talaga highlights, seven isn’t even the whole number. If you’d like to discuss Seven Fallen Feathers or seek other recommendations to learn more, I’d be happy to chat.
Sent on January 28th, 2018.